On the afternoon of August 18, 1953, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the thirty-three-year-old shah of Iran, and his glamorous twenty-one-year-old wife, Queen Soraya, swept into the gilded lobby of the Hotel Excelsior on Rome’s fashionable Via Veneto. The young royal couple cut a striking image, with the slim shah wearing a trimly tailored, light gray, double-breasted suit and dark glasses, and his petite, voluptuous queen calling to mind the exotic beauty of Sophia Loren. Soraya was half Persian and half German and had almond-shaped, green-blue eyes described as the most beautiful in the world by an Italian director who years later cast her as the leading lady in one of his movies. But on this day, the Iranian royals looked “worn, gloomy and anxious” in the words of a Times of London reporter—one of a flock of scribblers and paparazzi who had swarmed the couple when they disembarked from their BOAC plane at Ciampino Airport and pursued them to their hotel. Back home in Tehran, violent mobs controlled the streets of the capital, and after twenty-eight years on the Peacock Throne, the Pahlavi dynasty seemed on the verge of collapse. Fearing for their lives, the shah and his wife had fled his homeland carrying only a couple of suitcases, taking off in his private Beechcraft jet for Baghdad—the first leg of their journey—with such haste that they forgot to take the queen’s beloved dog.
Accustomed to royal opulence and the slavish attentions of his court, the young shah seemed lost in exile. “We do not have much money,” the shah warned his wife, who as the daughter of a prominent Iranian diplomat was also used to a luxurious lifestyle. He told Soraya they would have to be “very careful” with their spending. Before they fled, he had even asked her whether they could sell some of their wedding gifts, which included a mink coat and a desk set with black diamonds from Joseph Stalin and a Steuben glass bowl designed by Sidney Waugh that had been sent by President Truman.
During their first night at the Hotel Excelsior, the distraught shah paced the living room of their small suite, unable to sleep. He kept his personal pilot awake late into the night, fretting about the future that awaited him. The shah begged the pilot, one of only two retainers who accompanied the royal couple to Rome, to stay with him in exile. “Who is going to play tennis with me if you leave me?” asked the forlorn ruler.
But the shah was far from abandoned as he and Queen Soraya took up residence at the Excelsior. The CIA, which had prevailed upon the Persian industrialist who owned the fourth-floor suite to make it available to the royal couple, was keeping the shah under its watchful care. The Iranian monarchs found their accommodations to their liking. The luxury hotel’s Belle Époque–era grandeur had been drawing royal guests since the turn of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, the hotel enjoyed a la dolce vita revival, attracting a new wave of kings and queens from Hollywood, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. (John Wayne claimed that he scored his most memorable one-night stand at the Excelsior, with Marlene Dietrich. “I took her on the staircase,” he boasted.)
The Excelsior had also become a favorite rendezvous spot for espionage agents from around the world, as well as Italian men of mystery. Licio Gelli—leader of Propaganda Due, the conspiratorial Masonic order whose intrigues undermined Italian democracy for many years—kept three adjoining rooms at the hotel. The discreet gentlemen who paid visits to Gelli—whose secret anti-Communist operations drew funding from the CIA—would enter Room 127, conduct business in Room 128, and then exit through Room 129.
More important from the shah’s point of view, the Excelsior was also favored by Allen Dulles on his visits to Rome. That August, he and Clover were vacationing in Switzerland when the spymaster suddenly informed his wife they were leaving for Italy, and on the afternoon of August 18 the Dulleses checked into the Excelsior at the same time as the shah and Queen Soraya. Frank Wisner insisted the simultaneous arrival of the two couples was a complete coincidence. “They both showed up at the reception desk at the Excelsior at the very same moment,” Wisner told a CIA associate, with tongue undoubtedly firmly in cheek. “And Dulles had to say, ‘After you, Your Majesty.’”
Dulles’s arrival in Rome was conveniently timed. By the following morning, the mobs running riot through the streets of Tehran were led and financed by the CIA—the final act in a covert drama aimed at overthrowing the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and restoring the shah’s autocratic rule. Mossadegh, a dedicated patriot and wily survivor of Iran’s treacherous politics, had antagonized the British government by nationalizing the powerful Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed British Petroleum) soon after taking office in 1951. The British behemoth—the third-largest producer of crude oil in the world—ruled Iran with imperial arrogance for much of the twentieth century, crushing labor strikes in the hellish oil fields and propping up and replacing local regimes at will. Mossadegh’s defiant seizure of Iran’s oil treasure set off a global thunderclap. “By the end of the 1980s, most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America, had nationalized their oil, and thus gained influence over world prices,” observed historian Ervand Abrahamian. “In the early 1950s, however, such a loss was seen as heralding the ‘end of civilization’—not only for Britain but also for consumers throughout the industrial world.”
After Mossadegh’s bold move, the British spy agency MI6 began working strenuously to undermine his government. When the prime minister responded to the British plotting by shutting down the British embassy in Tehran and ejecting the ambassador, London turned to Washington for assistance.
The Dulleses were more than willing to help. Through their law firm, the brothers had long ties to major U.S. oil companies like Standard Oil, which strongly supported the tough British stand against Mossadegh, with hopes of securing their own stake in the Iranian oil fields. Allen had another former client with a big interest in the Iranian oil dispute: the London-based J. Henry Schroder Banking Corporation, on whose board he served, was the financial agent for Anglo-Iranian Oil.
The Dulles brothers had demonstrated their dedication to their former Sullivan and Cromwell petroleum clients soon after President Eisenhower took office by sabotaging a Justice Department antitrust case against the Seven Sisters oil giants. The price-fixing case against the oil cartel, a holdover from the Truman years, was reduced from a criminal to a civil charge and conveniently transferred to Foster Dulles’s jurisdiction, the first time in U.S. history that an antitrust case was handed over to the State Department for prosecution. Foster argued that the case had national security implications, and it quietly disappeared, leaving Big Oil unscathed.
Furthermore, Allen Dulles had a business history with the shah. In 1949, while still employed as a Sullivan and Cromwell rainmaker, Dulles had flown to Tehran, where he met the shah and negotiated a stunningly lucrative deal on behalf of a new company called Overseas Consultants Inc., a consortium of eleven large U.S. engineering firms. Iran agreed to pay OCI a Croesus-like fortune of $650 million for which the consortium pledged to modernize the backward nation, building hydroelectric plants, importing industries, and transforming entire cities. “This would be the largest overseas development project in modern history,” noted Dulles biographer Stephen Kinzer. “It was the greatest triumph of Allen’s legal career. For Sullivan and Cromwell it opened a world of possibilities.”
The shah realized that Allen Dulles could be an important ally. And indeed Dulles repaid the young ruler’s generosity by opening doors for him in New York and Washington. In November 1949, Dulles hosted an exclusive dinner party for the visiting potentate in the dining room of the Council on Foreign Relations. The shah’s remarks were music to the ears of the dinner guests. “My government and people are eager to welcome American capital, to give it all possible safeguards,” he assured them. “Nationalization of industry is not planned.”
But the rise of Mossadegh and his National Front political alliance disrupted the dream of prosperity that the shah had spun for his privileged audience. Mossadegh’s coalition led the opposition to the OCI deal, which National Front leaders denounced as a massive giveaway that would “break the back of future generations.” This patriotic rhetoric stirred the passions of the Iranian people, whose fate had long been determined by foreign powers. In December 1950, Iran’s parliament voted not to fund the monumental development project, thereby killing the chances of Dulles and OCI for a huge payday and forever poisoning the spymaster’s perceptions of Mossadegh.
Western observers found Mossadegh a perplexing character—strongly phobic to British colonial attitudes but touchingly hopeful about an alliance with the growing U.S. empire. The aging, balding leader was a mercurial personality, given to emotional outbursts and fainting spells. His long, mournful face gave him a funereal look, but he was capable of boyishly enthusiastic behavior. On a visit to Washington in October 1951, the new prime minister charmed Truman administration officials. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was tickled by his “delightfully childlike way of sitting in a chair with his legs tucked under him.”
In the beginning, Eisenhower also seemed sympathetic to Mossadegh, who sent the president-elect a heartfelt note on the eve of his inauguration, bemoaning the economic blockade that Britain had imposed on Iran and asking for U.S. assistance. There was a beguilingly innocent tone to the Iranian leader’s plea: “It is not my desire that the relations between the United States and the United Kingdom should be strained because of differences with regard to Iran. I doubt however whether in this day and age a great nation which has such an exalted moral standing in the world [as the U.S.] can afford to support the internationally immoral policy of a friend and ally. . . . The Iranian people merely desire to lead their own lives in their own way. They wish to maintain friendly relations with all other peoples. [But Anglo-Iranian Oil Company], which for years was engaged in exploiting [our] oil resources, unfortunately has persisted in interfering in the internal life of [our] country.”
Eisenhower’s innate midwestern sense of decency initially made him recoil from backing Britain’s colonial siege of Iran. He rebuffed the Dulles brothers’ advice, suggesting that it might be a better idea to stabilize Mossadegh’s government with a $100 million loan than to topple it. If Eisenhower had followed through on his original instincts, the bedeviled history of U.S.-Iran relations would undoubtedly have taken a far different course.
An air of tragic heroism clung to Mossadegh. When American envoys made a last-ditch effort to persuade him to appease the British oil giant, he proudly refused. The history of Iran’s leadership was plagued by cowardice and corruption, said Mossadegh, and he would not continue this sorry legacy. Anglo-Iranian Oil had already been offered fair compensation for its losses; Mossadegh would not compromise the resource rights of his country any further. If he cut a deal with the British, the prime minister told U.S. mediators, his reputation would be forever stained with the Iranian people, who would immediately assume that their nation had been sold out once more. Mossadegh’s adamant defense of Iranian sovereignty made him a beloved figure in his homeland, with a popular referendum at the height of the Iran crisis giving him nearly unanimous support.
Realizing that Eisenhower was not inclined to defend British imperial interests, the Dulles brothers reframed their argument for intervention in Cold War terms. On March 4, 1953, Allen appeared at a National Security Council meeting in the White House armed with seven pages of alarming talking points. Iran was confronted with “a maturing revolutionary set-up,” he warned, and if the country fell into Communist hands, 60 percent of the free world’s oil would be controlled by Moscow. Oil and gasoline would have to be rationed at home, and U.S. military operations would have to be curtailed.
In truth, the global crisis over Iran was not a Cold War conflict but a struggle “between imperialism and nationalism, between First and Third Worlds, between North and South, between developed industrial economies and underdeveloped countries dependent on exporting raw materials,” in the words of Ervand Abrahamian. Dulles made Mossadegh out to be a “stooge” of the Communists—but he was far from it. The scion of an aristocratic Persian family, the prime minister was educated in France and Switzerland, and tilted more toward the West than in the direction of Iran’s feared Soviet neighbor to the north. Mossadegh was a fervent nationalist, not a secret Communist—another Gandhi, in the assessment of one British foreign official, not a Mao. The Tudeh, Iran’s Communist Party, regarded Mossadegh with a decided wariness, viewing him as a “liberal bourgeois” with dangerous illusions about America. Mossadegh, in turn, relied on the Tudeh’s support when it suited him but kept his distance, seeing the party as too subservient to Moscow. Meanwhile, Soviet leadership remained reluctant to get too deeply involved in Iranian politics for fear of threatening the West’s interests there.
But after weeks of intensive lobbying by the Dulles brothers and the British government, Eisenhower became convinced that Iran was a Cold War battleground and that Mossadegh had to go. In June 1953, Allen presented the CIA plan to overthrow Mossadegh’s government to his brother at a special meeting of national security policy makers held in Foster’s office.
The coup plan had been drawn up by Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr., Allen’s handpicked man to run the operation on the ground in Iran. The well-bred grandson of Theodore Roosevelt did not seem like the sort of cutthroat character to carry out such a disreputable task. Roosevelt was well regarded even by ideological enemies like Kim Philby. “Oddly enough, I dubbed [Roosevelt] ‘the quiet American’ five years before Graham Greene wrote his book,” Philby once noted. “He was a courteous, soft-spoken Easterner with impeccable social connections, well-educated rather than intellectual, pleasant and unassuming as host and guest. An equally nice wife. In fact, the last person you would expect to be up to the neck in dirty tricks.”
Indeed, Roosevelt was taken aback by the blithe way that the fate of Iran’s democracy was discussed in Foster’s office that day. “This was a grave decision to have made,” he later observed. “In fact, I was morally certain that almost half of those present, if they had felt free or had the courage to speak, would have opposed the undertaking.”
But the Dulles brothers had already made up their minds about Iran and they allowed no room for debate. And once the brothers fixed the administration on its fateful course, they were confident that they had the right man for the job. The Dulleses could see the ruthless streak beneath Kim Roosevelt’s smooth Groton and Harvard polish. Three years earlier, they had recruited Roosevelt to work in Iran as a lobbyist for their ill-fated Overseas Consultants Inc. deal. And for the past two years, he had been spearheading a secret CIA operation to organize an underground resistance network inside Iran, burying crates of guns and cash in the desert to distribute to tribal warriors in case of a Soviet invasion. Roosevelt now turned this clandestine effort against Iran’s elected government, hiring bands of mercenaries and paying military leaders to betray their country. When push came to shove, Kim Roosevelt revealed that he shared his grandfather’s enthusiasm for imperial misadventures.
The U.S. and British intelligence operatives running the anti-Mossadegh operation were prepared to go to any lengths to accomplish their task. Key officials in the military and government who remained loyal to Mossadegh were kidnapped and murdered, such as General Mahmoud Afshartous, the officer in charge of purging the armed forces of traitorous elements. The general’s mangled corpse was found dumped on a roadside outside Tehran as a message to all officials who chose to stand by the prime minister. Other prominent loyalists had their throats slit and their bodies buried far away in the Alborz Mountains.
In the end, as Tudeh Party leaders feared, Mossadegh was undone by his faith in the American government. The prime minister still controlled the streets of Tehran on August 18, with National Front and Tudeh militants roaming throughout the capital and toppling royal statues and other symbols of the shah’s rule. But after conferring with Roosevelt, U.S. ambassador Loy Henderson—the Dulles brothers’ other canny emissary in Iran—arranged a fateful meeting with Mossadegh. During the hourlong meeting, Henderson vehemently protested the anti-Western “mob attacks”—which he claimed had even threatened the U.S. embassy and assaulted his chauffeur. Henderson warned that if the prime minister did not restore order, the United States would have to evacuate all Americans and withdraw recognition of Mossadegh’s government. The gambit worked. Mossadegh “lost his nerve,” according to Henderson, and immediately ordered his police chief to clear the streets. It was, the U.S. diplomat later observed, “the old man’s fatal mistake.”
With Mossadegh’s supporters off the streets, the CIA’s hired thugs were free to take their place, backed by rebellious elements of the military. On the morning of August 19, as Mossadegh huddled in his home at 109 Kakh Street with his advisers, tanks driven by pro-shah military officers and street gangs whose pockets were literally stuffed with CIA cash converged on the prime minister’s residence.
For two hours, a firefight raged outside Mossadegh’s home, which was protected by three tanks commanded by officers loyal to the prime minister. But the rebel forces had two dozen tanks at their disposal, including two powerful U.S.-built Shermans, and the outcome was predictable. As shells tore into his residence, Mossadegh ordered his tank commander to cease fire. The seventy-one-year-old prime minister and his top aides then scaled the wall to a neighboring house, barely escaping the wrath of the hired mob, which proceeded to smash down the green grill gate and ransack the official residence. One of the brave officers in charge of defending the prime minister was torn limb from limb by the rampaging mob. Soon after, Mossadegh and the other officials were arrested and imprisoned in a military barracks, thereby ending Iran’s brief interlude of democracy.
Mohammad Mossadegh had been violently evicted from office, but the CIA coup could not be successfully completed until the shah returned home to reclaim his throne. As the coup got under way, Kim Roosevelt had worked frantically to prevent the shah fromfleeing the country, telling him that it was his duty to stand with the rebel forces and assuring him of U.S. protection. But courage failed “the king of kings.” He was “a wimp,” in the candid estimation of Roosevelt, who had stuck it out in Iran even after the shah had taken flight and the CIA had told their intrepid agent that he should do the same.
As the tumultuous events unfolded in Tehran, the shah and Queen Soraya were photographed on a shopping excursion along Via Condotti, dipping in and out of the Gucci, Dior, and Hermès showcases that lined Rome’s fashion avenue. Despite his budget worries, the shah mustered the nerve to buy himself four tennis rackets and a pair of black antelope shoes, as well as lingerie, two crocodile handbags, and a dozen summer frocks for his wife. The paparazzi later snapped Soraya in one of her stylish outfits, an eye-catching polka-dot dress that exposed her lovely bronzed shoulders.
As the coup reached its climax, Dulles was monitoring the operation from his bunker in the U.S. embassy, just down the block from the Excelsior. The spymaster’s vigil was no doubt enlivened by the presence of the American ambassador to Rome, the seductive and witty Clare Booth Luce, wife of Henry Luce and a celebrated playwright. While Clover entertained herself at the Excelsior, Dulles, who was rumored to be sexually involved with the attractive ambassador, spent long nights at the embassy. Although Clare Luce was an ardent convert to Catholicism and was later known for a widely reprinted speech decrying the anything goes “new morality” toward sex, she and her husband seemed to have a sense of aristocratic license when it came to their own sex lives. While Dulles was dallying with Luce’s wife, the magazine mogul was enjoying himself with Dulles’s wartime mistress, Mary Bancroft.
But the strongest link between Dulles and the Luces was their shared conviction that they were driving forces behind what Henry had christened “the American Century.” Luce coined the term in a 1941 Life magazine editorial, calling for the United States to take a dominant role in global affairs, “exert[ing] upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” In effect, Luce was calling for the United States, on the brink of entering World War II, to replace Britain as the new world empire—not by holding overseas territories, as in the passing colonial era, but by flexing its military, commercial, and cultural strength. Luce’s missionary vision of American power, which would find echoes in a later generation’s embrace of “American exceptionalism,” meshed neatly with that of the Dulles brothers. But while Luce could only preach about the historic imperative of American power, Allen Dulles was in a position to act on it.
Dulles’s main mission in Rome was to stiffen the shah’s spine and whisk him back to the Peacock Throne. The royal couple were taking their lunch in the Excelsior dining room when they heard that Mossadegh had been overthrown. The shah seemed shaken by the news instead of overjoyed. His “jaw dropped,” according to one observer, and “his trembling fingers reached for a cigarette.” He looked chastened. “I have to admit that I haven’t had a very important part in the revolution,” he murmured. But Soraya was upbeat. “How exciting,” she trilled, placing a reassuring hand on her husband’s arm. Dulles quickly arranged a special commercial flight to take the shah home.
Soraya, pronouncing herself not quite ready to face the clamor, stayed on in Rome a while longer. She was also consulting feverishly with a prominent American gynecologist flown in by the CIA to help her get pregnant. “Four times a night,” she told the doctor, “and twice every afternoon. Still I don’t have a baby.” Soraya never overcame her infertility. Frustrated by the queen’s inability to provide the Pahlavi dynasty with an heir, a weeping shah would announce their divorce in 1958. Aided by a generous royal settlement, Soraya returned to luxurious exile in Rome, where she became the lover of Italian director Franco Indovina and had a brief film career.
As the shah boarded his chartered KLM airliner home, he knew that he was returning to a roiling tempest in Iran, where he was widely reviled by his subjects as a puppet of Western powers. But, according to some accounts, Dulles himself helped brace the shaky ruler by accompanying him on the flight to Tehran. The CIA also spread around more cash to make sure his arrival would be greeted by cheering crowds. Two retainers flung themselves on the ground to kiss his feet as he made his way down the reception line at the airport. The shah warmly greeted Ambassador Henderson, one of the “heroes” of the coup. By the time he was carried back to the palace in the royal limousine, past the dutifully enthusiastic throngs on the streets, the shah had convinced himself that he was indeed a man of destiny—instead of just another creature of the CIA.
“The shah is living in a dream world,” Henderson drily remarked. “He seems to think his restoration was due entirely to his popularity with his people.”
Dulles would look back on the coup in Iran as one of the two greatest triumphs of his CIA career, along with the regime change he engineered in Guatemala the following year. This was the sort of daring high-wire act that gave him the biggest professional thrill, and it left him with a taste for more. Dulles imagined himself a character in a John Buchan spy novel, Kim Roosevelt told CIA Middle East hand Miles Copeland, and the spymaster “wouldn’t be able to restrain himself—or us” if the opportunity arose anywhere else to repeat the agency’s exploits in Iran. “Allen would give his left . . . well, let us say index finger,” said Roosevelt, “if he could go somewhere in the field and engineer a coup d’état himself.”
Dulles’s handiwork could also be seen in the compliant U.S. press coverage of the regime change. News reports on the coup assiduously avoided looking into the CIA’s deep involvement. Newsweek gave Dulles’s appearance at the Excelsior a curious wink and a nod, but then quickly passed on. Amid “the hubbub” over Mossadegh’s fall, noted the magazine, the CIA director suddenly was spotted in the hotel—but “no one paid any attention to him.”
Dulles not only persuaded his high-placed friends in the press to throw a cloak over the CIA’s operation, he convinced them to share his exuberance over its success. A Washington Post editorial saw the overturning of Iran’s democratic government as a “cause to rejoice.” The New York Timestook a similar celebratory line, calling Mossadegh “a rabid, self-seeking nationalist” whose “unlamented” disappearance from the political stage “brings us hope.” The U.S. press even avoided using awkward words like “coup,” preferring to describe the CIA-engineered operation as a “popular uprising” or a “nation’s revolt.”
If Dulles carefully concealed the CIA’s role from the American public, he made sure that the shah was made fully aware of the debt he owed the agency. U.S. national security forces would continue to prop up the shah’s reign for the next quarter of a century, encouraging the ruler’s “megalomania,” as Jesse Leaf, who served for a time as the CIA’s chief analyst on Iran, remarked. But the agency’s contempt for the man on the Peacock Throne only grew with time. Leaf found him “basically a hollow man, a straw man, a pipsqueak.”
But the hollow man proved very useful for Western interests, including those of some of the Dulles brothers’ leading former clients. Under a new agreement with the major oil companies orchestrated by the shah a few months after the coup, Iran’s oil industry was denationalized. Once again, the country’s natural treasure was handed over to foreign corporations, with 40 percent of the spoils now going to American oil producers, including Gulf, Texaco, Mobil, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Standard Oil of California.
Kim Roosevelt was among those who cashed in on the coup, leaving the CIA in 1958 to join the management of Gulf Oil, where he took charge of the company’s relations with foreign governments, including the Iran regime. Later, he became an international consultant, representing the shah and serving as a middleman for weapons manufacturers doing business with Iran. The shah remained deeply loyal to his CIA friends, once toasting Roosevelt at a palace ceremony as one of the powerful forces, along with the Almighty, to whom he owed his throne.
The Iran coup had an intoxicating effect on the Eisenhower administration, coursing through the Oval Office, the CIA, and the State Department like a champagne glow. “It was a day that should never have ended,” stated a rapturous internal CIA report on the coup. “For it carried with it such a sense of excitement, of satisfaction and of jubilation that it is doubtful whether any other can come up to it.” The president summoned the now mythic Roosevelt to the White House to make a special presentation on his Persian escapade. A spellbound Eisenhower later said that it was more like listening to a rousing “dime novel” than a government briefing. When Roosevelt looked over at the secretary of state midway through his presentation, Foster was leaning back leisurely in his chair, and it appeared for a moment as if he might be dozing. But then Roosevelt realized that Foster’s “eyes were gleaming. He seemed to be purring like a giant cat.”
But what for Washington was a tale of derring-do right out of The Scarlet Pimpernel was for Iran a disaster without end. The country’s fledgling democracy was dismantled, and members of oppositional parties and the press were rounded up or driven underground. With the CIA’s strong encouragement, the shah unleashed his secret police organizations—first the Second Bureau, and in 1957 the infamous SAVAK—in a ruthless campaign to root out “subversion.” The Tudeh bore the brunt of the crackdown. With CIA assistance, the shah’s U.S.-trained security forces tracked down over four thousand party members between 1953 and 1957. Many were subjected to primitive torture methods, including whippings and beatings, the smashing of chairs on heads, and the breaking of fingers. A few were subjected to the gruesome qapani, in which they were hung from hooks. At least eleven people died under torture during this period, most from brain hemorrhages, and dozens more were executed.
The regime grew alarmed when reports began circulating about the condemned prisoners’ heroism—how they had gone to their deaths singing defiant songs and denouncing the shah. It was reported that the firing squads’ bullets often missed their targets, either “through nervousness or deliberate avoidance,” and that officers had to dispatch the prisoners with pistol shots. The regime was forced to clamp a tighter lid on future rounds of executions, out of fear that the prisoners’ show of “bravado” was “impressing large segments of the public.”
All hope for change was ripped from the hearts of the Iranian people, replaced by poisonous seeds whose bitter fruit grew slowly over the next two decades. The shah ultimately reaped what he had sown, driven into his final exile in 1979 by a popular revolt led by the country’s Islamic mandarins, the only oppositional sector of Iranian society not crushed by the Pahlavi regime. The Americans and Iranians are still paying for “the day that should never have ended.”
After his arrest, Mossadegh was put on trial for treason. He responded by telling the court that his real crime was that he had “resisted imperialism.” The U.S. embassy fretted that his trial was a “serious blunder,” since it reinforced the popular leader’s “demigod” status and his mystical “hold over the public.” Fearing that executing him would only make him more of a martyr, the regime sentenced Mossadegh to three years of solitary confinement and then banished him to his rural village, sixty miles north of Tehran, where he lived out the rest of his days in a small, white-walled house. When he died nine years later, at age eighty-four, the shah blocked efforts to organize a public funeral ceremony. Even in death, Mossadegh was taunted by the U.S. press, with a wire story by the Associated Press portraying him as an “iron dictator” who had terrorized his enemies and “brought the country to economic chaos.” The ambulance carrying his body from a hospital in Tehran to his home went “almost unnoticed,” the news item gloated. “In the downtown bazaar, crowds went about their shopping for the Persian New Year.”
The shah refused Mossadegh’s final request—to be buried in the main Tehran cemetery, alongside the bodies of his supporters who had been shot down in the streets by the army. Instead, he was buried underneath his own sitting room, near a mantelpiece where a picture of Gandhi gazed serenely over him.
The Eisenhower-Dulles era was a Pax Americana enforced by terror. The administration ensured U.S. postwar global dominance by threatening enemies with nuclear annihilation or with coups and assassinations. It was empire on the cheap, a product of Ike’s desire to avoid another large-scale shooting war as well as the imperial burdens that had bankrupted Great Britain. By leveraging the U.S. military’s near monopoly on nuclear firepower, the president hoped to make war an unthinkable proposition for any and all American adversaries. And by utilizing the CIA’s dark sleight of hand, the commander in chief aimed to render it unnecessary for the Marines to go crashing ashore in far-flung locales where unfriendly governments had taken office.
Dwight Eisenhower himself was a peace-loving warrior, the son of a pacifist mother who had cried when he was admitted into West Point. Though he never experienced combat firsthand—a gap in his military résumé that he sorely regretted through much of his career—Eisenhower saw more than his share of the effects of war, touring the blood-soaked battlefields after World War I and the still-smoking ruins of Europe and newly liberated Nazi death camps following World War II. As the Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower acutely felt the sacrifice that he was asking of the thousands of young men under his leadership. While the general and his staff prepared to dispatch waves of soldiers onto the beaches of Normandy in June 1944—over ten thousand of whom would be killed or wounded on D-day—he suffered wrenching stomach pains, soaring blood pressure, recurring headaches and throat infections, and chronic insomnia. “He was as nervous as I had ever seen him and extremely depressed,” recalled Kay Summersby, the general’s wartime secretary and intimate companion.
Eisenhower also felt the enormous responsibility of sitting in the Oval Office at the dawn of a new era in which science had given U.S. leaders the means to destroy virtually all life on the planet. But while privately grasping the unprecedented gravity of the moment, he publicly adopted a disturbingly nonchalant attitude toward the new weapons of mass destruction.
Eisenhower biographer Evan Thomas later called his nuclear brinksmanship “Ike’s bluff,” a bold strategy to keep the world at peace by threatening total war. There was a perverse logic to the Eisenhower-Dulles policy of massive retaliation. But by reserving the right to use nuclear weapons anytime and anyplace that U.S. interests were threatened, the administration kept the world in a state of perpetual anxiety. As the Soviet Union began narrowing the nuclear weapons gap in the 1950s, the planet was held hostage by the growing tensions between the two superpowers—the United States and the USSR were “two scorpions in a bottle” in the memorable phrase of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Did Eisenhower really believe that nuclear explosives were just another conventional military tool, as he indicated at a March 1955 press conference when asked if he might consider using them during a confrontation with China over two tiny, obscure islands in the Formosa Strait? “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else,” Eisenhower announced. Or did he realize that nuclear arms had made war unthinkable, as he noted in his diary the following year, soon after declaring his candidacy for a second term? “The problem is not man against man, or nation against nation,” Eisenhower wrote. “It is man against war.”
Eisenhower seemed to revel in the terrible uncertainty that he created, seeing it as a way to intimidate enemies and keep them off balance. After the president’s nuclear “bullet” statement, White House press secretary Jim Hagerty nervously asked his boss how he planned to handle follow-up questions about the atom bomb option. Ike smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Jim, if that question comes up, I’ll just confuse them.”
The problem with Eisenhower’s strategy was that by keeping Washington in a constant state of high alert, he empowered the most militant voices in his administration, including the Dulles brothers and Pentagon hard-liners like Admiral Arthur Radford and Air Force general Curtis LeMay—who, taking their commander in chief at his word, continually agitated for a cataclysmic confrontation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower once said that he feared his own “boys” in the military more than he did a sneak attack from the Soviets, who, as he observed, had suffered so devastatingly during World War II that they would be deeply reluctant to risk World War III. The president did not think any of his nuclear commanders would go rogue, but he knew that the constant Pentagon pressure for bigger doomsday arsenals produced equally strong temptations to use the weapons—particularly while the United States still enjoyed a clear margin of nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower might have been certain of his ability to rein in the Strangelovian figures in his national security establishment, but his chronic health troubles made his control of the country’s war apparatus seem questionable at times. Eisenhower, who wrestled with high blood pressure, suffered a heart attack in September 1955 that was more serious than the White House publicly admitted. He was not able to return to the Oval Office on a regular basis until January. As the sixty-five-year-old Eisenhower debated whether or not to seek reelection in 1956, his heart specialist advised that there was a fifty-fifty chance he would not live out a second term—an opinion that was also kept secret. Nine months after his heart attack, Eisenhower was operated on for a painful bowel obstruction and remained hospitalized for three weeks. And in November 1957, the president suffered a mild stroke in the Oval Office, which affected his speech and caused severe headaches for weeks. During Eisenhower’s periods of incapacitation, it was Foster Dulles and Vice President Nixon, the Dulles brothers’ acolyte, who moved into the presidential power vacuum. Neither man was known for his sense of moderation in dealing with Communist adversaries.
From the very beginning of the administration, Secretary of State Dulles argued that the United States must overcome the “taboo” against nuclear weapons. At a February 1953 National Security Council meeting, just three weeks into Eisenhower’s presidency, Foster raised what he called “the moral problem” that hovered over all nuclear decision-making. He was not referring to the profound questions about mass slaughter and human survival. Foster meant the moral revulsion against doomsday weapons that prevented policy makers from seriously contemplating their use.
Foster pushed Eisenhower to consider using the ultimate weapons during one crisis after the next, including the climactic stage of the Korean War in 1953, the final French stand in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the battle of nerves with China over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu that same year, and the 1958 confrontation with the Soviets over Berlin. At various, hair-raising moments of these crises, Eisenhower seemed poised to take Foster’s advice, and was only dissuaded by the alarmed opposition of allied leaders or the cooler-headed responses of the Chinese and Soviet governments.
John Foster Dulles was the exemplar of Mills’s “crackpot realism.” He was a “wise man” who, in sober and solemn tones, advocated positions that were the height of madness. “We are at a curious juncture in the history of human insanity,” Mills wrote in The Causes of World War III, his 1958 jeremiad against the growing fever for the final conflict. “In the name of realism, men are quite mad, and precisely what they call utopian is now the condition of human survival.”
“Utopian action”—by which Mills meant active diplomacy among the superpowers, a ban on nuclear arms testing, a moratorium on the production of “extermination” weapons, scientific and cultural exchanges, and free travel between the West and East—was actually “realistic, sound, common sense,” he wrote. In contrast, “practical actions are now the actions of madmen and idiots. And yet these men decide; these men are honored, each in his closed-up nation, as the wise and responsible leaders of our time who are doing the best they can under trying circumstances.”
Foster seemed to have a chillingly remote perspective on what it meant to drop a nuclear bomb. When the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu was on the verge of collapse, he offered to give two “A-bombs” to French foreign minister Georges Bidault. The French official was deeply shaken by Foster’s blithe offer. Bidault responded “without having to do much thinking on the subject.” He pointed out to Foster that “if those bombs are dropped near Dien Bien Phu, our side will suffer as much as the enemy.” Likewise, during the Formosa Strait crisis, Foster was surprised to learn that the “precision” nuclear bombing of Chinese targets that he was advocating would kill more than ten million civilians. Still, he was not chastened enough to stop his campaign to “punish” the Chinese.
Mills noted that, like the Nazis before them, the national security leaders “rationally” planning for a nuclear holocaust were characterized by a “moral insensibility.” Official violence had become so bureaucratized that “in official man there is no more human shock.” Mills believed that humanity would continue to teeter on the brink of the eternal void until Eisenhower’s secretary of state, whom he accused of a “doctrinaire and murderous rigidity,” was replaced by a diplomat who was serious about the prospects for peaceful coexistence.
The death in March 1953 of Joseph Stalin, the Moloch of Soviet brutality and despair, offered the Eisenhower administration the opportunity to redefine the U.S. relationship with Moscow, as the Kremlin’s new leaders began the process of de-Stalinization. But Foster continued to counsel a hard line against the Soviets, interpreting any signs of a Cold War thawing in Moscow as evidence that the tough U.S. line was working. The secretary of state even sternly cautioned Eisenhower not to smile at Soviet officials or shake hands with them at the July 1955 Geneva Summit. This proved difficult for Ike, observed Stewart Alsop, since “his whole instinct was to smile and be friendly. And then he’d kind of draw back, remembering what Foster had said.”
Nikita Khrushchev, the canny and down-to-earth political survivor who was emerging from the Kremlin’s scrum as the top Soviet leader, closely observed the personal dynamics between Eisenhower and his secretary of state in Geneva and concluded that Foster was in charge. “I watched Dulles making notes with a pencil, tearing them out of a pad, folding them up, and sliding them under Eisenhower’s hand,” Khrushchev later wrote in his memoir. “Eisenhower would pick up these sheets of paper, unfold them, and read them before making a decision on any matter that came up. He followed this routine conscientiously, like a dutiful schoolboy taking his lead from his teacher. It was difficult to imagine how a chief of state could allow himself to lose face like that in front of delegates from other countries. It certainly appeared that Eisenhower was letting Dulles do his thinking for him.”
Before jumping on the Eisenhower bandwagon in 1952, the Dulles brothers calculated that he would not make a strong president. But Ike’s malleability offered its own advantages, in their eyes. As secretary of state, Foster succeeded in undermining or deflecting every tentative step that the president made toward détente with the Soviet Union. In August 1955, following the Geneva Summit, Foster sent out a long cable to all U.S. diplomatic mission chiefs around the world, warning that the free world must not let down its guard despite the air of goodwill wafting out of the conference. “Geneva has certainly created problems for the free nations,” he wrote. “For eight years they have been held together largely by a cement compounded of fear and a sense of moral superiority. Now the fear is diminished and the moral demarcation is somewhat blurred.” The free world must not “relax its vigilance,” he declared, dismissing the post-Stalin Soviet peace efforts as a “classic Communist maneuver.” Hope was Foster’s enemy, fear his righteous sword.
By 1958, five years into the process of de-Stalinization, Khrushchev was understandably deeply puzzled and frustrated by Washington’s failure to diplomatically engage with his regime. The main obstacle to peace, he rightly concluded, was John Foster Dulles.
Foster’s staunch resistance to making peace with the Soviets did not reflect a perverse contrariness or extreme anti-Communism. Nor did it suggest his true assessment of the Soviet threat. His belligerence was strategic. As his revealing cable stated, this militant sense of alert was the “cement” that held together the Western alliance. And as Mills pointed out, the “continual preparation for war” was also the main factor holding together America’s power elite. Or, in the mordant observation of Randolph Bourne as the United States plunged into the epic madness of World War I, “War is the health of the state.” Foster, who always acted in the interests of the American establishment, understood this. It was this permanent war fever that empowered the country’s political and military hierarchies and enriched the increasingly militarized corporate sector. It was the very lifeblood of this ruling group’s existence—even if, in the atomic age, it threatened the existence of humanity.
The Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy operated on twin levels of psychic violence and actual violence. While the secretary of state threatened to evaporate entire populations with “tactical” nuclear strikes, the director of central intelligence actually eliminated individuals around the world whenever they were deemed to be a threat to national security. Determined to use the CIA more aggressively than President Truman, who had feared creating an “American Gestapo,” Eisenhower unleashed the agency, giving Allen Dulles a license to kill that the spymaster utilized as he saw fit.
Years later, in the 1970s, when post-Watergate congressional committees forced the CIA to account for its lethal reign under Dulles, the agency tried to downplay its ruthlessness. CIA witnesses testifying before the Church and Pike Committees insisted that while the agency had targeted foreign leaders such as the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Fidel Castro, its assassins had proved inept or were beaten to the punch. Assassination, went the CIA line, was simply not the sort of business at which its people excelled. But the agency was being too modest.
In truth, the CIA became an effective killing machine under Dulles. Allen Dulles was an assassination enthusiast throughout his espionage career, from the days of his involvement in the Operation Valkyrie plot against Hitler onward. Later in his career, any nationalist leader who seemed a problem for U.S. interests was viewed as fair game. During the 1957 Suez crisis, as a group of foreign policy officials and commentators gathered for dinner at the Washington home of Walter Lippmann, the conversation turned to Egypt’s defiant leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. One of the guests jested, “Allen, can’t you find an assassin?” To the group’s amazement, Dulles took the comment in dead seriousness. “Well, first you would need a fanatic, a man who’d be willing to kill himself if he were caught,” said the spymaster, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. “And he couldn’t be an outsider. He’d have to be an Arab. It would be very difficult to find just the right man.”
The Dulles brothers assured multinational firms that Washington would stop at nothing to protect their overseas investments. In August 1956, during yet another period of upheaval in the Mideast, Foster addressed a private meeting of oil company officials in Washington. The secretary of state assured the oilmen that if any sultan or despot were to be as unwise as Mossadegh and try to nationalize his underground desert treasure, the country would soon find itself the target of an “international intervention.” Fortunately for Eisenhower, who sought to avoid such costly military operations, his administration would only feel compelled to mount one such intervention, sending the Marines into Lebanon in 1958 to ensure that the Beirut government remained in friendly hands. The rest of America’s imperial mission during the Eisenhower years remained firmly in the hands of Allen Dulles.
Whispers about Dulles’s tactics began making themselves heard in the White House during Eisenhower’s first term. Some of the anxious reports came from those Washington circles that took a permanent interest in the nation’s affairs, no matter which party was in power. Some emanated from within the spy agency itself. In July 1954, Eisenhower asked a trusted military friend, retired Air Force general James H. Doolittle, a World War II hero, to look into the agency and give him a confidential report. After Doolittle finished his investigation in October, the president blocked out an afternoon to hear his briefing. The general told Eisenhower that the CIA was badly managed and that Dulles was overly zealous. Furthermore, the relationship between the Dulleses was “unfortunate”—an alliance based on blood that allowed the brothers to establish their own, largely unaccountable power center within the administration. Eisenhower responded defensively, insisting that he found the Dulles brother act to be “beneficial.” As for Allen, he might have his peculiarities, conceded the president, but the CIA was “one of the most peculiar types of operations any government can have, and it probably takes a strange kind of genius to run it.”
Ironically, the Doolittle Report gave Dulles even more justification for his remorseless shadow war by concluding, “It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.” Dulles could not have put it more zealously himself.
Dulles’s CIA operated with virtually no congressional oversight. In the Senate, Dulles relied on Wall Street friends like Prescott Bush of Connecticut—the father and grandfather of two future presidents—to protect the CIA’s interests. According to CIA veteran Robert Crowley, who rose to become second-in-command of the CIA’s action arm, Bush “was the day-to-day contact man for the CIA. It was very bipartisan and friendly. Dulles felt that he had the Senate just where he wanted them.”
The CIA director found the House side of Congress to be equally amenable. Each year, Dulles had to go through the formality of making the agency’s budget pitch to the armed services panel of the House Appropriations Committee, which was chaired at that time by Rep. Clarence Cannon of Missouri. On one occasion, the CIA’s congressional liaison Walter Pforzheimer had to track down the elusive Cannon to find out when that year’s CIA budget hearing would be scheduled. Pforzheimer cornered Chairman Cannon in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, alerting the congressman to the fact that Dulles would be asking for a 10 percent increase in the CIA’s budget. “All right, Walter, you tell Mr. Dulles that he had his hearing and that he got his 10 percent.”
Eisenhower was perfectly happy to have Congress stay out of the CIA’s business, fearing a repeat of the McCarthy circus if legislators were allowed to probe the agency’s operations. The president—who didn’t know everything about the agency’s dark side, but knew enough —was also keenly aware of the dangers of such exposure. “The things we did were ‘covert,’” the president wrote in a diary entry that was not declassified until 2009. “If knowledge of them became public, we would not only be embarrassed . . . but our chances to do anything of like nature in the future would almost totally disappear.”
John Eisenhower, who served his father as a White House aide, later blamed the Dulles spy set for manipulating the president. Ike was no match, said the younger Eisenhower, for the slick Ivy League types at the CIA. “Dad could be fooled. He was better when the guy was in uniform and knew him. But all those guys from Princeton and Yale . . .” Yet, throughout most of his presidency, Eisenhower was all too willing to be fooled by the CIA. Ike knew that Dulles’s “strange genius” had its uses.
In 1956, to appease critics who charged that the CIA was operating with extremely minimal supervision, Eisenhower again ordered a discreet investigation of the agency by national security insiders—this time, diplomat David Bruce and Wall Street banker-statesman Robert Lovett. Eisenhower and Dulles felt there was nothing to fear from this new inspection, since Bruce and Lovett were longtime friends of the spymaster. But the Bruce-Lovett report shocked Dulles, taking strong aim at the CIA’s penchant for creating political mayhem around the globe. There was an airy arrogance to Dulles’s “busy, monied and privileged” agency, with its obvious fondness for overseas “kingmaking,” declared the report. The promiscuous freedom that had been granted to Dulles and his “extremely high-powered machine” to “go barging around into other countries . . . scared the hell out of us,” Lovett later remarked.
But, once again, Eisenhower ignored the strong criticisms leveled at the spy agency. Dulles’s operation was simply too essential a component of the president’s Cold War strategy for him to rein it in.
Unmanaged by the White House and unsupervised by Congress, Dulles’s CIA grew to become the most potent agency of the Eisenhower era. Dulles was a master at seeding Washington bureaucracies with agency men, placing his loyalists in top positions in the Pentagon, State Department, and even the White House. The CIA became increasingly intertwined with the armed services, as military officers were assigned to agency missions, and then sent back to their military posts as “ardent disciples of Allen Dulles,” in the words of Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, who served as a liaison officer between the Pentagon and the CIA between 1955 and 1963. Prouty, who observed Dulles at close hand, marveled at his mastery of the Washington power game. “He simply worked like the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon; he eroded all opposition.”
Late on September 9, 1954, as midnight approached, Jacobo Arbenz, the recently deposed president of Guatemala, was escorted into the Guatemala City airport with a small entourage, including his wife, Maria Vilanova, and two of their children. Arbenz was beloved among his dirt-poor country’s peasants and workers for his land and labor reforms, but he was reviled by Guatemala’s aristocracy. As he prepared to leave his homeland, Arbenz was showered with abuse by a smartly dressed crowd of several hundred ill-wishers. “Assassin! Thief! Piece of shit!” they screamed at him as he hurried into the airport terminal with his family.
Arbenz was fortunate to make it past the venomous crowd unharmed. Shortly before he and his family were driven to the airport, a decoy car masquerading for security purposes as the vehicle actually transporting the Arbenz family was blown up by his enemies.
Howard Hunt, one of the principal CIA orchestrators of the Guatemala coup, later acknowledged that he had helped organize the hostile send-off party at the airport for the benefit of the press. But Hunt claimed that he had spread the word among his people to let Arbenz leave the country unscathed. He knew that if the deposed leader were assassinated, “we’d [the CIA and the United States] get blamed for it.” Relatives of Arbenz later said they found Hunt’s professed concern for their family’s security “hard to believe,” considering his role in the Guatemalan president’s violent downfall.
Before he was allowed to board the chartered DC-4 waiting to take him to Mexico City—the first stop in what would turn out to be a permanent exile—Arbenz was subjected to a final humiliation. Authorities of the new military regime demanded that the ex-president strip to his underwear in full view of a mob of jostling reporters and cameramen, ostensibly so that they could make sure he was not smuggling out cash. After his traumatic overthrow, Arbenz’s nerves were shot. He and his family had spent seventy-three days and nights in miserable asylum at the Mexican embassy in Guatemala City, which had become so packed with political refugees that typhus and other diseases had broken out. At the airport, Arbenz looked pale and drawn in the glare of the camera lights. Every time a flashbulb popped, he visibly flinched. And yet, even as he disrobed in full view of the press pack, he held on to a kind of dignity, his head erect, his eyes looking straight ahead. “It gave the impression that a cold statue was taking off his marble clothes,” remarked one of the ogling reporters.
“They were trying to break him down psychologically,” said Dr. Erick Arbenz, a New York anesthesiologist and grandson of Jacobo Arbenz, who has led the family’s campaign to reclaim his legacy. “Can you think of another example like this, where the elected leader of a nation was forced to undergo this sort of humiliation—to be publicly undressed in front of news cameras? The CIA was afraid of him—an educated, articulate reformer who had stood up to the local elite and the U.S. government. He was a big threat to these powerful interests.”
For the rest of the exiled Guatemalan leader’s life, the CIA was determined to strip away whatever shred of respectability still clung to him. The agency’s disinformation campaign began immediately after Arbenz’s downfall, with a stream of stories planted in the press—particularly in Latin America—alleging that he was a pawn of Moscow, that he was guilty of the wholesale butchery of political foes, that he had raided his impoverished country’s treasury, that he was sexually captivated by the man who was the leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party. None of it was true.
CIA operatives had swarmed the presidential palace after he was ousted, collecting official documents and personal correspondence. They knew everything about Arbenz’s private life. They knew about the intricate dynamics of his marriage, as well as the gruesome details of his father’s suicide, and that he had once sought treatment for a drinking problem. When their discoveries weren’t sensational enough, they embroidered them and sent them fluttering around the world.
While the CIA did all that it could to ruin Arbenz’s name, the State Department pressured foreign governments to give the deposed president and his former deputies a chilly reception wherever they turned up. When Mexico City grew too inhospitable for Arbenz and his family, they tried Switzerland, land of his father’s birth. But the Swiss authorities demanded that Arbenz give up his Guatemalan citizenship, which he refused to do, so the next stop was Paris. They settled on the Right Bank; his beautiful daughter Arabella was enchanted by the city. But every time Arbenz went for a walk, he felt he was being tailed. When he tried to hold a press conference to present his case against the powerful men who had overthrown him, French authorities threatened to deport his family unless he canceled the event. Arbenz began drinking again, dwelling on his final days in Guatemala, and his fateful exit from the political stage to avoid a bloodbath. The tragedy was “trapped in his head,” said one of his friends.
To escape the hostile environment in the West, Arbenz fled with his family behind the Iron Curtain, first to Czechoslovakia and then to the Soviet Union. The howling in the press grew louder: here, at last, was proof of Arbenz’s true, Bolshevik heart. “Finally Arbenz has found asylum in a place that he must love,” crowed the New York World-Telegram and Sun, when he first alighted in Prague, “a land from the Iron Curtain where they practice the same sort of democratic regime as his.” Newspapers around the world sounded the same refrain, as if all following the same conductor.
In fact, Arbenz’s misery continued unabated behind the Iron Curtain. He hated the cold and sunless days; he missed the lush colors and radiance of the tropics. And he soon discovered that he had replaced one system of surveillance with another. Arbenz had only ended up in Russia because no other country wanted him. He reached out to every leader in Latin America, but the State Department had made it clear that any nation that took in the top men from the Arbenz government would incur Washington’s wrath. Finally, Uruguay agreed to host Arbenz, but he was informed that he could not speak out, teach, publish his writing, or even take a job. He was, during his Montevideo sojourn, the invisible man.
But Arbenz still loomed large in the eyes of the CIA. Howard Hunt, who by then had taken over as the agency’s chief of station in Uruguay, continued to closely track the man he had driven into exile. A neighbor of the Arbenz family told them that their house seemed to be under constant watch from a black car parked on the corner. Making the surveillance even easier for the CIA, Arbenz and his family had been installed on the same street where Hunt himself lived. Some evenings, Hunt and his wife even showed up at the same restaurant where the Arbenzes dined.
In 1960, Arbenz was invited to Cuba, and at last he and Maria felt they had found a safe place to raise their children. He was energized by the revolutionary fervor on the island, which was still luxuriating in the glory of its historic accomplishment. Arbenz was allowed to be a public man again, invited to speak at political rallies and to the Cuban press. But everywhere Arbenz went, he heard the militant slogan: “Cuba is not Guatemala!” His downfall had become a cautionary tale.
“After the Bay of Pigs, Cuban officials would compare my grandfather’s defeat to the heroic Cuban victory over the U.S.,” said Erick Arbenz. “He was used for propaganda purposes, to build up the esteem of the Cuban people. It was humiliating for him.”
The Arbenzes met with Fidel Castro, to see if they could find a place for themselves in the new Cuba. Arbenz suggested that he could teach at the University of Havana, but the Cuban authorities were as leery of the former Guatemalan leader’s democratic politics as the CIA was. During his Cuban exile, Arbenz grew increasingly disenchanted with the island’s Communist rule. The family was moved into a small house in Varadero, a resort town safely removed from the political action in Havana.
The charge of cowardice had haunted Arbenz from the moment he surrendered his office. A young Argentinian doctor named Che Guevara—who had come to Guatemala to help the bold Arbenz experiment in progressive democracy—was among those who implored the besieged president to arm the people, when Arbenz’s army officers began to melt around him under pressure from the CIA. But the Guatemalan leader was no Che or Fidel—he had lacked the cold-blooded courage to plunge his country into civil war. “My grandfather knew that the peasants were not trained to fight—so arming them would have just resulted in a bloody mess,” said Arbenz’s grandson. “He loved Guatemala and its people too much to do that.”
Arbenz’s beloved daughter, Arabella, refused to stay with the rest of the family in Cuba. Tired of their endless search for sanctuary, she fled back to Paris and began to create her own life—and her own tragedy. Arabella’s beauty launched her on a modeling career and even landed her a movie role. She fell in love with a famous matador, who was equally celebrated for his many romances. Their stormy love affair provided the international press with another sensational Arbenz story to pursue. One day in 1965, after arguing loudly in a café in Bogotá, Colombia, Arabella rushed outside, returning soon after with a gun. She pointed it first at the matador, and then she stuck it in her mouth and pulled the trigger.
“The family had been hounded all over the world—they were suffering from post-traumatic stress because of their ordeal,” said Erick Arbenz. “On top of that, there was a history of depression on my grandfather’s side.”
Arbenz was never the same after the death of his twenty-five-year-old daughter. She had been his special one, the child with whom he had clashed the most and loved the most. The press was merciless, portraying him as a cold and remote father, a man who had sacrificed the well-being of his children on the altar of his ideals. When Arbenz and his family were forced to run the ugly gauntlet at the Guatemala airport, he had told his children, “Don’t be afraid, keep your chins up. We’ll get through this.” But, in the end, he could not protect them.
Arabella was buried in Mexico, and the Mexican government allowed the family to relocate there. Arbenz still struggled to find a means of support, and Maria, forced to become the family’s provider, had to fly frequently to El Salvador, where her father had business interests. In his later years, Arbenz was an increasingly forlorn figure. He frequently visited Arabella’s grave; it seemed as if he, too, belonged more in the world of shadows. But he continued to hold on to the dream of one day returning to Guatemala.
All that ended in January 1971, when Jacobo Arbenz died a strange and lonely death at age fifty-seven in the bathtub of a Mexico City hotel room. Authorities said he had climbed into a tub filled with scalding hot water and had either burned to death or drowned. He reportedly had been drinking. But Maria Arbenz always believed that her husband had been assassinated. In later years, it was revealed that the CIA had compiled a list of assassination targets during the planning for the 1954 coup. Arbenz’s family was convinced that the agency was still working its way through the list when the former president suffered his terrible end.
What had Jacobo Arbenz done to deserve such a heartbreaking journey through life—a tale of grief and lament out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel? Simply put, he had tried to uplift his people. In doing so, he defied the gods of his country, the almighty United Fruit Company and its powerful friends in Washington, as well as Guatemala’s medieval land barons. In June 1952, Arbenz pushed a sweeping land reform bill through his nation’s legislature aimed at redistributing the heavily rural country’s farm acreage, 70 percent of which was in the hands of 2 percent of the landowners. Among the properties expropriated under the new law and handed over to poor farmers were some of the vast estates of United Fruit.
Until Arbenz’s election in 1950, the giant company, whose operations sprawled throughout the Caribbean, ran Guatemala less like a banana republic than a banana colony. United Fruit not only owned huge plantations but almost every mile of railroad track in the country, the only major Atlantic port, and the telephone system. In the capital, rulers came and went at the whim of the company. One of Arbenz’s more cold-blooded predecessors, Jorge Ubico, thought of peasants as nothing more than beasts of burden. Before the 1944 revolt that toppled his dictatorship—an uprising that Arbenz had helped lead—farm workers were roped together like animals by Ubico’s army and delivered to plantations where they were forced to work in debt slavery to the landowners.
Jacobo and Maria Arbenz were the Kennedys of Guatemala’s fledgling democracy—young, rich, good-looking, and dedicated to improving the lives of their people. Jacobo, the son of a Swiss immigrant father and a mixed-race ladina mother, had overcome a sad childhood, including the suicide of his father, to become a rising officer in the Guatemalan army. He met his striking, dark-eyed wife, the daughter of a wealthy Salvadoran coffee plantation owner, at a dance while she was visiting Guatemala in 1938. The twenty-three-year-old Maria—who had been educated at a Catholic women’s college in California and who loved to read and paint—was more cultured than the young lieutenant. But at twenty-five, Jacobo Arbenz cut a dashing picture in his uniform, with a noble profile that called to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a solemn and thoughtful air about him that lent him a gravity beyond his years.
Maria had been born “between silk sheets,” in her words, but she had never been comfortable with the way that her family’s privileges were built on the backs of her father’s campesinos. Jacobo, who had been raised by an indigenous nanny, was similarly sensitive to the suffering of Guatemala’s native population. When Maria asked Jacobo what he would like to do with his life, he answered with great sincerity, “I would like to be a reformer.”
They married a few months later, and their home became an oasis of enlightenment in backward Guatemala. The promising young officer and his rich, charming wife felt more comfortable in the company of reform-minded professors, artists, and even young Communists than they did with members of the local aristocracy, who did not invite the couple to their social functions. “But what did we care?” Maria later remarked. “They were parasites—like in El Salvador. I wanted to broaden my horizons. I hadn’t come to Guatemala to be a socialite and play bridge or golf.”
Jacobo and Maria Arbenz proved to be a dynamic match. She encouraged his bold entrance into Guatemalan politics in 1944, when he helped lead the plot to overthrow the tyrannical Ubico. She fed his hunger for more learning by giving him a feast of books, from Emerson to Marx. Their vision for Guatemala became more ambitious, and dangerously radical by the authoritarian standards of the banana colony.
As Guatemala made the transition to democracy following the 1944 revolt, Arbenz got increasingly involved in political affairs. In 1950, he decided to run for president, focusing his campaign on agrarian reform, which he knew was the key to his country’s liberation. He consulted with Maria’s brother, Tonio, who was an agricultural expert, with a progressive Mexican economist, and with young leaders of the Guatemalan Communist Party whom he had come to respect as some of the most dedicated and intelligent agents of change in the country. Together, they formulated a plan for sweeping land reform and social progress in Guatemala.
After her husband’s presidential victory, Maria Arbenz came under fire from his enemies as an evil influence over the newly elected Guatemalan president—a beguiling, Communist-leaning sorceress. But Arbenz ignored the poisonous political chatter and allowed his well-informed wife to participate in cabinet meetings. She soon established herself as one of his top advisers.
The land reform bill that the new president hammered out and then ushered through the legislature two years later was relatively moderate—Arbenz’s government only expropriated acreage from United Fruit’s huge holdings that was not under cultivation, and it offered the multinational corporation fair compensation for the seized land. But by Guatemala’s retrogressive standards, Arbenz’s land redistribution measures were breathtakingly bold. Many of the political colleagues in Arbenz’s reform faction feared that he had gone too far, and that he would trigger a terrible backlash from the superpower to the north. Their fears were well founded.
The powerful influence of the United Fruit Company could be felt throughout Washington, where the company had high-placed friends and stockholders in both parties. The company’s advocates were scattered throughout Congress and the foreign policy establishment. One would have to go far back in time, to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—when the Dutch East India Company ruled a far-flung empire, with the power to make war, negotiate treaties, hang convicts, and mint its own money—to find another corporation that wielded such clout.
United Fruit was especially well connected to the Eisenhower administration. As the agribusiness giant began lobbying the White House to overthrow Arbenz, Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, the president’s trusted friend and undersecretary of state, was seeking an executive position with the company. After the coup, he was named to United Fruit’s board of directors. Henry Cabot Lodge, who argued the United Fruit case against Arbenz as Eisenhower’s UN ambassador, belonged to one of the blue-blooded Boston families whose fortunes were long entwined with the banana company. John Moors Cabot, who was in charge of Latin American affairs at the State Department, was the brother of United Fruit’s former chief executive. Even the president’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman, was connected to United Fruit: her husband was the company’s public relations director. But United Fruit had no more powerful friends in the administration than the Dulles brothers.
The Dulleses had served as United Fruit’s lawyers from their earliest days at Sullivan and Cromwell. On the eve of World War I, young Foster made a discreet tour of Central America on behalf of United Fruit, which was growing concerned about labor unrest and creeping Bolshevism in its tropical empire. Upon returning from his corporate spy mission, Foster made a confidential report to his uncle, Robert Lansing, who was not only a former counsel for United Fruit but President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state.
Allen became so frequent a visitor to Guatemala as a legal envoy for United Fruit that he began taking along Clover, who fell under the spell of the country’s beauty and culture. The couple’s Tudor-style home on Long Island’s North Shore was adorned with colorful native fabrics and rugs they brought back from their trips to the banana colony, giving their otherwise ordinary residence a surprisingly exotic touch. But Dulles’s interest in Guatemalan artifacts did not extend to the people who had produced them.
United Fruit’s cries of alarm about Arbenz’s land reform soon produced the same results that Anglo-Iranian Oil’s protestations did in Iran. The Eisenhower-Dulles administration moved swiftly to isolate Guatemala, labeling it a Soviet “beachhead” in the hemisphere. The Arbenz government, Foster charged, was imposing a “Communist-type reign of terror” on the Guatemalan people. Ambassador John Peurifoy, the Dulles brothers’ handpicked man in Guatemala, tried to bribe Arbenz to fall in line, offering him $2 million to abort his land reforms. When that tried-and-true tactic of winning over Latin dictators did not succeed, Arbenz was physically threatened. And when that, too, failed to persuade the resolute leader, the Dulles brothers began arranging for his removal.
The CIA found a disgruntled, exiled Guatemalan colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas, who was working as a furniture salesman in Honduras at the time, to lead the uprising against Arbenz. His revolutionary “army” turned out to be a ragtag band of mercenaries and other unsavory types. Castillo Armas led his motley force across the border into Guatemala, driving a battered station wagon. The real threats to Arbenz’s presidency came from the sporadic bombing raids on the capital carried out by CIA pilots, which sowed panic among the population, and from the agency’s successful campaign to subvert the Guatemalan military. One army commander reportedly was paid $60,000 to surrender his troops.
When Arbenz realized that his army officers could not be counted on to obey his orders to defend the capital, he knew the game was over. Unwilling to take to the mountains to lead a guerrilla resistance, like the one that would make history in Cuba’s Sierra Maestre, Arbenz began the long and winding descent that would end in a Mexico City hotel bathroom.
On June 27, 1954, as he prepared to flee the presidential palace, he made a final radio broadcast, denouncing the “fire and death” that had been rained upon Guatemala by United Fruit and its allies in “U.S. ruling circles.” Few of his fellow citizens heard Arbenz’s farewell address: in a last act of sabotage aimed at his government, the CIA jammed the radio speech. As he signed off, Arbenz declared with certainty that—despite his personal downfall—the cause of progress in Guatemala would triumph. The social accomplishments of the past few years, he insisted, could not be undone. History would prove him terribly wrong.
After Arbenz was overthrown, Dulles assembled his Guatemala task force in the White House to brief the president on the victorious operation, which had been confidently code-named PBSUCCESS. Less than one year after the Iran coup, the CIA director and his team had won a second opportunity to puff out their chests. PBSUCCESS would forge deep, lifelong bonds among Dulles and his Guatemala crew, which included Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, Howard Hunt, David Phillips, and David Morales. Many of the team members would be reunited for the Bay of Pigs. In later years, some of the Guatemala veterans would again pop into the spotlight under even more notorious circumstances.
But when they filed into the East Wing theater for their Guatemala slideshow, the PBSUCCESS team was at the height of its glory. The room was filled with the administration’s top dignitaries, including the president himself, his cabinet, and the vice president. Afterward, Eisenhower, ever the soldier, asked Dulles how many men he had lost. Just one, Dulles told him. “Incredible!” exclaimed the president.
But the real body count in Guatemala started after the invasion, when the CIA-backed regime of Castillo Armas began to “clean” the nation of political undesirables, labor organizers, and peasants who had too eagerly embraced Arbenz’s land reforms. It was the beginning of a blood-soaked era that would transform Guatemala into one of the twentieth century’s most infamous killing fields. The “stainless” coup, as some of its CIA engineers liked to call it, would actually result in a tide of gore, including assassinations, rampant torture and executions, death squad mayhem, and the massacres of entire villages. By the time that the bloodletting had run its course, four decades later, over 250,000 people had been killed in a nation whose total population was less than four million when the reign of terror began.
The U.S. press coverage of the Guatemala coup offered a sanitized account, one that smacked of CIA manipulation. The leading newspapers treated the overthrow of Arbenz’s government as a tropical adventure, an “opéra bouffe,” in the words of Hanson Baldwin, one of Dulles’s trusted friends at The New York Times. Nonetheless, reported Baldwin, the operation had “global importance.” This is precisely how Dulles liked his overseas exploits to be chronicled—as entertaining espionage capers, with serious consequences for the Cold War struggle. New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was extremely accommodating to Dulles throughout the covert operation, agreeing to keep foreign correspondent Sydney Gruson, whom Dulles considered insufficiently compliant, out of Guatemala and even assuring the CIA director that Gruson’s future articles would be screened “with a great deal more care than usual.”
The strangely lighthearted tone of U.S. news dispatches about Guatemala would seep into history books about the CIA and Dulles biographies for years. But, in truth, Guatemala was less opéra bouffe than Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol.
The murderous intrigue began long before the actual coup. As early as January 1952, the CIA started plotting to eliminate the top officials of the Arbenz government. Howard Hunt might have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of an Arbenz assassination in full public view, but the CIA had no qualms about compiling a secret “disposal list” of at least fifty-eight key Guatemalan leaders during the planning for the coup. The assassination memo was among several hundred documents relating to the 1954 coup released by the CIA in 1997 during one of the agency’s occasional exercises in carefully managed “openness,” which one critic labeled “a brilliant public relations snow job.” Still, the documents were revealing enough to send shock waves through the international press.
In one of the declassified documents, an unnamed CIA official expressed his confidence on the eve of the Guatemala coup that “the elimination of those in high positions of the [Arbenz] government would bring about its collapse.” Another document—a chillingly detailed, nineteen-page CIA killing manual titled “A Study of Assassination”—offered the most efficient ways to butcher Guatemala’s leadership. “The simplest tools are often the most efficient means of assassination,” the manual helpfully suggested. “A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” The manual also advised assassins which parts of the body to strike for the most lethal effect, noting that “puncture wounds of the body cavity may not be reliable unless the heart is reached. . . . Absolute reliability is obtained by severing the spinal cord in the cervical region.” The authors of the manual did make a passing reference to the morality of killing elected leaders of a sovereign nation. “Murder is not morally justified,” the manual briefly acknowledged. “Persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.”
The CIA compiled its death list with bureaucratic diligence, circulating the names of those nominated to die within agency departments and among Guatemala’s military plotters, and asking for comments (as well as suggestions for the names of additional targets) like an interoffice memo. Because the CIA deleted the names on the list when it declassified the document, there is no way to tell how many—or if any—of the fifty-eight or more prominent Guatemalans were eventually assassinated. But what is known is that by training and encouraging Guatemala’s new military masters in the art of political murder, the CIA injected a death spore into the nation’s bloodstream that would wreak havoc for decades.
As soon as the dictator Castillo Armas was installed in the presidential palace, the CIA began pressuring him to purge Guatemala of leftist elements. His army rounded up some four thousand suspected Communists. As they revealed under interrogation, few of the prisoners had ever heard of Karl Marx and none belonged to the Communist Party—but they were guilty of belonging to democratic political parties, labor unions, and farmworker associations. They all had been infected with dangerous ideas during the Arbenz era because, in the words of one observer, “they believed [that] in a democracy the people chose the government, Guatemala needed land reform, and workers deserved protection under the law.”
For the rest of his regime, Castillo Armas would do everything in his power to purify Guatemala of these thoughts. The CIA, enamored of making ominous lists, helped the new regime assemble a lista negra of subversives that soon grew to seventy thousand names. Eventually the names on the blacklist amounted to a staggering 10 percent of the country’s adult population. Many of the names came from the Arbenz government documents that the CIA had seized when it raided the presidential palace. In August 1954, Castillo Armas announced Decree 59—the beginning of Guatemala’s fascist legal architecture—which gave his regime the right to arrest those on the blacklist and to hold them for up to six months without trial. Those unfortunate enough to be rounded up were put in the care of José Bernabé Linares, the notorious chief of the Guardia Judicial, who was known for extracting confessions from prisoners with electric-shock baths and steel skullcaps.
Guatemalan journalists who attempted to report on the regime’s abuses were themselves thrown into prison and tortured. But as Castillo Armas consolidated his brutal reign, with the CIA’s energetic support, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City continued to cover for the regime, insisting that there was “little basis for apprehension that the country could become a harsh police state very soon.”
Meanwhile, the barbarism spread to the countryside, where peasant leaders were summarily executed, setting the stage for Guatemala’s future death squads. Exiles reported that the regime was encouraging the rise of vigilante groups, telling them, “You can go and rob and kill in such-and-such sector, at this address, and you can be sure there won’t be any police around to bother you about it.” The worst massacre at the time took place in Tiquisate, a center of farmworker activism, where as many as a thousand peasants were seized by soldiers from plantations owned by United Fruit and local despots, lined up, and machine-gunned into open trenches.
Castillo Armas’s own bloody end came in July 1957, when he was assassinated by one of his own palace guards. But his death did nothing to abate the slaughter, which continued on and off for decades, reaching new heights of ferocity during the Reagan presidency. One of the military dictators who succeeded Castillo Armas vowed, “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.”
The enormous suffering of the Guatemalan people weighed heavily on Jacobo and Maria Arbenz during their long exile. “It haunted my grandparents every day,” said Erick Arbenz. “That was another reason there was so much depression in our family. They lived and felt the Guatemala holocaust every day. They had tried to bring about a Guatemala Spring—and then to suffer not only their own defeat, but to see everything that was done to their people . . . it was an overwhelming tragedy.”
The anguish of the Arbenz family seemed to have no end. In 2004, the Arbenzes’ other daughter, Maria Leonora, followed the path of her sister and killed herself. “She felt as if she were being pursued and persecuted her whole life,” said Erick. “Those feelings never went away from her.”
After the Eisenhower administration overthrew Jacobo Arbenz, U.S. officials boasted that they would turn Guatemala into “a showcase for democracy.” It became, instead, a bottomless well of sorrow.